An interview with the American artist Megan Elizabeth Read about her alternate realities, her magical reliefs and pauses from the chaos of contemporary life
an interview by Carmen Line Hust
To the American artist Megan Elizabeth Read (b. 1982), the most basic level of existence, the tensions, contradictions, and complexities often seem too big, too dissonant, and too surreal for her to grasp. Her attempts to paint these phenomena are her way to find an order in things, oftentimes leading to these layered portraits. Subjective snapshots, reflecting the inside out.
The work of Read is often dreamlike in nature, giving the viewer a glimpse into stark but calm, contemplative worlds. She tries to use the work as an avenue for reduced noise in a chaotic time and an opportunity to slow down, to take a pause. To breathe. Within them Read explores the concepts of emotional and behavioral expansion, contraction, vulnerability, and armor, both within herself and others, as well as additional conflicting themes such as the perpetual and constant vs the transitory and contemporary. Read considers her figurative paintings in some ways aspirational portraits of multiple selves: who you are, who you want to be, and all of the you’s that must constantly coexist.
The work of Megan Elizabeth Read is meticulously created in oil, sometimes on linen and sometimes on panels, and in general these quiet, shadowy works revolve around traditional elements like flowers or the nude figure but often include contemporary references. They are a mirror for her external and internal worlds.
We have had a talk to the American artist Megan Elizabeth Read about her alternate realities, her magical reliefs and pauses from the chaos of contemporary life and the current situation(s).
From where is your drive generated, in regards to your artistic work?
When I was young I remember seeing paintings in books and being enthralled. Wanting desperately to be able to construct something so beautiful. A magical, alternate reality. It was astonishing to me. In the very beginning I think that is what drove me to do more than casually draw in the way most children do, though admittedly it was something I was skilled at from the start. I wanted to be able to create those worlds. But even as a child I found that in those attempts, in that process of creation, sinking into that flow state, was the only place that I ever felt at ease in the world. It was an escape. And that is really what propelled me then and what brought me back to it later in life.
And so my drive to create is less related to an urge to communicate anything to others, or even to the idea of creating a specific object at this point, but stems more from a need to just be in that state and process. It soothes me and feels like home. It gives me purpose. I remember listening to an interview with a musician some years ago and I really loved how he spoke about his work - it felt familiar. He essentially said that when he is playing music he feels like himself, like the person he is supposed to be. Which doesn’t at all mean it’s always fun, that he is enjoying it, or that the music is even good. Just that that is what he is supposed to be doing.
That’s how I feel about making art and why I began to focus all my time on it. Because it is a relief and I feel like myself when I am doing it.
How did you develop your artistic vocabulary?
When I began trying to paint after a decade or so away I was only painting for myself and I was simply using it as a way to find comfort and to process my feelings, memories, and struggles.
Because the fact that other people might eventually see these paintings was nowhere in my mind when I started I think it is only natural that the elements that appear in my work would simply reflect my inner world and outer experience, so my vocabulary, as it were, is something that has mostly developed naturally without much planning.
I am a highly sensitive person who is easily overwhelmed and over-stimulated, so I tend to create spaces in my work that are an escape from the noise and chaos of the outer world. The aspects that I find sharp and grating. And within those spaces small narratives sometimes play out: if I am struggling with identity, or vulnerability, or connection, or being in this body, those things will be reflected there. At other times these spaces will simply contain items from my environment or childhood and they are a way of reminding myself where I am, where I have been, that I exist, and what moves me.
Do you work with a project-minded approach, or do the themes of your work evolve in a more dynamic way?
Generally it is more dynamic, though there have been times when I have planned a more cohesive body of work for a show. For example, fairly recently in 2020, I (like many artists I’d imagine) created a show that was focused on my experience of the pandemic since that was rather all consuming at the time.
For the most part though I just follow whatever seems to be bubbling up at the moment. I often loop through the same theme over an over, but it just happens subconsciously. Much of my work feels as if it is repeating and changes as we move along.
What is your preferred media and why?
In the beginning, as a child, I began by working in pencil and later in life when I wanted to start creating again I began working on charcoal, both of which I still love, but for the last few years almost all my time has been spent on oil painting, with a drawing here and there and a few breaks to sculpt (which I find beyond satisfying). So I suppose I would say oil painting is my preferred medium at the moment?
When I decided to shift to painting it was all that I could focus on, all consuming really, for a few reasons. Because I was still learning and it is admittedly incredibly difficult there was just no room to work on anything else. It’s hard enough to be good at one thing and splitting up my time seemed unreasonable. But once I got a handle on it (I wouldn’t say “mastered” because I am not sure I ever will) I found the ability to create such convincing and fully realized worlds mesmerizing - it still feels like magic to me. Eventually I will want to focus more on sculpture and drawing again, but for now I am continuing to live in that world.
Are your works pre-thought or do they emerge by their own?
Because of the style that I work in I really need to plan out each piece fully before I begin, so in that sense they are pre-thought, but they are developed more from intuition than conscious conceptualization.
If your works are pre-thought, how do the idea emerge and how do you select which ideas proceed, and which not?
Mostly images just bubble up in my head and I try to capture them and recreate them on a surface, generally figuring out what they are saying along the way. Depending on the scale, intricacy, and investment of time, I will think more or less about them before laying them out and diving in. I do have a few more narrative multi-figure works which have been in my head for a couple years now and it may be a bit longer before I am able to fully create those. On the other hand smaller pieces that are more about a feeling or experience I spend less time planning or thinking about. That makes them no less important to me, it just means for those I am simply letting them flow through without much molding or thought.
What do you believe is a key element in creating a good composition?
My background was in design originally, not fine art, and I don’t know that I feel that I am any sort of authority on what makes a good composition in general but I imagine that has influenced the way I see things and how I approach composition. I find lots of complex and densely packed pieces by other artists wonderful, but personally I want things to be simple, with a clear hierarchy, and an arrangement that leads your eye through the piece without any disruptions. I want my pieces to feel orderly and clean, because that is what comforts me personally.